Published: May 2011
Finally got around to it: November 2011
I looked. And it was as though there was nothing in the world wrong with him, his manner was perfectly at ease. I imagined what he in turn was seeing in me, hair wild, rubbery belly pushing against an unclean undershirt, eyes red and filled with hurt and mistrust. It came over me all at once, then: I was not an efficient killer. I was not and had never been and would never be. Charlie had been able to make use of my temper was all; he had manipulated me, exploited my personality, just as a man prods a rooster before a cockfight. I thought, How many times have I pulled my pistol on a stranger and fired a bullet into his body, my heart a mad drum of outrage, for the lone reason that he was firing at Charlie, and my very soul demanded I protect my own flesh and blood? And I had said Rex was a dog? Charlie and the Commodore, the two of them together, putting me to work that would see me in hell. I had a vision of them in the great man’s parlor, their heads enshrouded in smoke, laughing at me as I sat on my comical horse in the ice and rain outside. This had actually taken place; I knew it to be the truth. It had happened and would happen again, just as long as I allowed it.
I said, ‘This is the last job for me, Charlie.’
He answered without so much as a flinch: ‘Just as you say, brother.’
And the rest of the morning in that room, packing and washing and preparing for our travels—not another word exchanged between us.
Eli and Charlie Sisters are brothers, guns for hire based out of Oregon City. The pair have built themselves a reputation back when a name was all it took to scare some poor fool halfway to pissing his pants. The Sisters brothers. Should they have reason to cross your path, your life may be forfeit.
Hired by a mysterious and powerful man known only as the Commodore, Eli and Charlie embark on a journey from Oregon City to a gold-mining claim near Sacramento to find and assassinate one Hermann Kermit Warm. How Warm harmed the Commodore is the source of much rumination amongst the brothers—because The Sisters Brothers is not at all a typical Western. For this, I am grateful.
It bears mentioning that the Western as a genre has never worked for me. Short of a strange affinity for Blazing Saddles, the drab, kill-or-be-killed Western aesthetic has always left me feeling cold and uninterested, regardless of the story being told. Had it not been for the quartet of literary awards The Brothers Sisters has been nominated for, I likely would have passed it by based solely on this prejudice. Thankfully, I was convinced to take another stab at the genre.
The Sisters Brothers works as well as it does because it is recognizable as a Western in base aesthetics only. Sure, there are horses, saloons, gunfights, whores, and plenty of gold fever to go around; but beyond the checklist trappings of the genre is a decidedly un-Western story. This is popcorn existentialism wrapped up in a saddle.
Narrated in the first person, The Sisters Brothers charts Eli’s dismay over their chosen profession. Charlie, the more sociopathic and whiskey guzzling of the two, is in deeper than Eli with the Commodore—a detail that adds to Eli’s dissatisfaction. He wants out—of service to the Commodore, of killing for hire, of their entire lifestyle. He has a romantic side he seeks to explore. He yearns for simplicity, safety, and a life without murder. Eli is the gunslinger’s antithesis.
As the brothers track Warm, their musings reveal a wider than expected gap between them. Indeed, the gulf between Eli and Charlie becomes greater as the narrative progresses. Though they do agree on how to best handle certain situations, the accord is not made through a commonality of perspective, but through necessity. As Warm’s offense to the Commodore becomes clear and the brothers further question their role in everything, the gulf of personality grows, and Charlie’s lack of conscious reveals itself as the one thing that will forever keep the brothers apart on a truly emotional level.
DeWitt’s modest existential tale is what’s missing from most genre fiction—a desire to play with archetypes within the confines of their established sandbox. The Sisters Brothers is laced with an unexpected dry wit that feels at once in line with Eli’s personality, but also exists on the fringes of genre expectations. The novel is a bit of a breath of fresh air—a Western that pays homage to the establishment without feeling indentured to it.
And pour one out for Tub. Poor horse dragged more emotion out of me than most characters this year.